Back to Mal's Writing Corner

The Imperial American Space Program
an attempt to get the best of both worlds
by J. A. Norton II, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico & Canada, etc.
(with assistance from the Nuke Free Zone)

George W. Bush has slapped together a politically pretty but ultimately empty initiative for the manned exploration of space. His plan, essentially a retread of George H. W. Bush's 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), fails to take into account advances in space technology and materials science in both the theoretical and practical realms since the original SEI was formulated.

But SEI/Bushplan is not what we're here to discuss today. No. Instead, I - with the help of the Nuke Free Zone space corps - am going to outline a space program that will accomplish the following things to, if not total satisfaction, then a greater deal of satisfaction than has been achieved since the days of Jack Kennedy:

  1. Setting up a well-funded unmanned space program with the primary goal of understanding exactly how the Earth and the Solar System work. We often forget the second word, and it's important; that big ball of radiation in the heart of the system is literally the source of all life on this planet, and the other worlds can tell us equally big things about how they evolved and why Earth is so different.
  2. Setting up a well-funded manned space program with the primary goal of surveying the Solar System for purposes of future colonization and resource explotation. Let's face it, after all; the consumerist society isn't going away anytime soon, and the planet's resource base is dwindling. Some things we can't replace - the products of the Earth's biosphere most of all. Some things, however, like metals and energy, are abundant in space, and we should begin looking to them for our needs.

A lot of this comes down to what I think a "good" government is supposed to do. When you get right down to it, a government should be all about infrastructure. Provide for the common defense with police, fire and (when all else fails) the army. Support the common good through things like health care and the social safety net. Deliver the mail, regulate the utilities and build and maintain the roads and bridges. Government shouldn't be involved in raising sails and planting flags - it never ends well when under direct government control, and it's usually better to subcontract out.

So we're going to drop the flags and footprints, and go back to doing what government does best.

Building bridges.

First of all, we're gonna scale back ISS and the Shuttle. I love the project dearly, but we're going to need the shuttle fleet free in order to accomplish the major parts of our task and running ISS assembly at full-tilt puts the three we have left at greater risk. But station fans, don't fret overmuch; we'll maintain ISS for at least a few more years yet as a biological / environmental workshop, and all the hard work put into its construction will be incredibly valuable down the line.

Once the screamng from that bold maneuver has subsided, we're going to increase our unmanned science operations tenfold, using new techniques to build small, rugged and above all -cheap- satellites to give us real-time information about the Earth and the rest of the solar system. The Mission to Planet Earth gets a big shot in the arm and a dozen or so new earth observation platforms - little more than a solar cell, a few instruments and a transponder - to take measurements. We'll make them as close to assembly-line as possible, so if one fails we can stick two more onto a rocket the following Tuesday. Depending on what's left over in the budget maybe we can ressurect the Triana L1 webcam, putting a live image of Earth From Space out on the WWW to inspire a new generation of space geeks. It might even get Al Gore to crack a smile in public. (kidding! kidding!)

We'll put little robot buggies (like R/C cars with cameras) on the Moon and Mars - maybe farm this one out to a reality TV-drenched public; drive a car on the Moon! - to look for signs of water and helium and other things we'll need once we're Ready. But most importantly, we -will- have at least one Mars Sample Return mission and one Europa mission to see if we can't find a few cracks in that ice worth peeking into ready to go by 2010.

Meanwhile, the second half of our plan is taking off back on Earth. The groundside materials engineers, chemists, and physicists will get Funding. Lots of funding, for one primary goal: They have to make a ribbon of carbon nanotuce in any requested length, and they have to hold a very specific tensile strength. Oh, and we'll need them by 2015 if at all possible, thanks.

The board is set, the pieces are moving. As soon as the engineers in announce a success in getting what we requested, we're going to put in an order for 60,000 miles of high-tensile nanotube cable, a pair of study rocket engines, and a nice, stable platform on the Equator. The cable and rockets we ship up in the Shuttle - it's a big load, so it'll take a couple of flights to do it - and from low orbit it goes out to 60,000 miles above the Earth. Once there, we ever so slowly bring the leader on the cable back down to our equatorial platform.

Remember all those little robots we were throwing willy-nilly all over the place? They were spinoffs and testbeds for the little robots we now use to run cable. Ever see a suspension bridge go up? That's what we're doing here - endless back and forth, tying one narrow cable to another one to make a bigger, stronger cable.

When we're done, we'll have a cable ready for cars. These cars will be able to put things into orbit around the planet, or into orbit around other planets, for very little money per pound. A Mars mission, for example, could be hauled all the way out to the end of the line, 60,000 miles away, hooked up to its injection stage, and then just let go at the right moment; centrepital force would do most of the hard work, and the engine would only be required for course corrections.

("But," I hear you say, "what about the elevator cable? Wouldn't terrorists knock it down and destroy all life on Earth?" Well... no. A break in the cable at about the height where the WTC was hit (call it around 800 feet) would only serve to drop several tons of cable onto the surface anchor (which would suck if you were directly beneath it) and the remaining 60,000 miles would slowly drift away into space. The break could be anywhere from ground level to a hundred miles up and the effect would still be the same. If you were to break the cable up near the counterweight, the majority of the cable would burn up in the atmosphere.)

And there's your bridge. It's a road from America to the solar system. Anybody can use it - provided they can pay the toll (it's not much, and the elevator provides transport - think of it like a bus pass) - and go anywhere they think they can get with the tools at their disposal.

Imagine the National Geographic Society mission to provide a travelogue of the Apollo landing sites. Imagine the MIT Mars expedition. Imagine a joint Greenpeace/British Petroleum (yeah, yeah, I -know,- but roll with me here, okay?) operation to start unloading solar power satelites in geosynchronous orbit to replace aging and starving oil/gas/coal power plants.

Back to Mal's Writing Corner